Backyard Vineyard Update - Year 3

Updated: Jan 10

This year the backyard vineyard really filled out. We got our first small harvest of both red and white wine grapes. I am beginning to learn the challenges for this growing region (Pittsburgh, PA), along with which grapes seem to be at home here. It is certainly possible to grow great wine grapes in Southwestern, PA but it is no easy feat!


If you haven't been following this project, you can start here.

Starting a Backyard Vineyard


My favorite things about the vineyard.

When I factor in my time, it would be a lot better to just buy wine grapes (which I still do.). My time in the vineyard doesn't feel like actual work, even though it is often sweat inducing. It is more of a purposeful reason to get outdoors. You never know what you will find when flipping through the leaves and positioning shoots. As I learned in the first two years, there is always some new pest trying to de-leaf the vines or infect the berries. It's me against nature out there, in the best way. Sure, I'd love to feed all the little insects and fungi, but not with my grape leaves and berries! Just like a student to teacher ratio might be important in a school, a human to vine ratio can make all the difference in a vineyard. I can spend a lot of time with each individual vine, helping them to develop what it takes to make great wine grapes. This just isn't possible when working with a larger vineyard with thousands of vines. The process can be a little challenging, but oh man is it rewarding.



Vine Growth Update

Most vines are around 3/8 inch to 5/8 inch in diameter at the trunk (end of season) and are fully filling the trellis, so the vineyard looks mature and beautiful from a distance. Every vine produced fruit this year and the wine from that fruit is entering the bulk aging stage as we speak. Next year, the vineyard should be operating at near full capacity which should yield around 400-500lbs of fruit.



2020 Weather

The 2019-2020 winter was relatively mild, causing no issues whatsoever on the grapevines. On May 1st most vines were at bud break and ready to leaf out at full force. Things were looking great, and there were no signs of cold weather on the forecast, so I was very optimistic. My optimism was short lived though. On May 8th, we had an unexpected deep freeze with overnight lows reaching around 25°F. This wiped out all new growth with a total loss of about 80% of the total buds. Luckily the remaining buds and a portion of the secondary buds turned out to be fruitful and we did get a small harvest (about 125lbs). To help guard the vineyard from future late freezes or frosts, I installed an overhead sprinkler system which should ice over the vines.

Three year old vineyard

Aside from the freeze situation, the weather this year was great (for Pittsburgh..). The summer was mostly dry as compared to the last few years which helped to keep vegetative growth in check and reduced mildew and mold pressure. The growing season was relatively long, with first fall frost hitting on October 31. This allowed everything to ripen fully without issue.


General Vineyard Tasks

In the spring the main tasks were de-hilling the vines and pruning.


De-hilling is the process of removing the dirt mounds used to protect the graft union over the winter. A grape hoe works extremely well for both hilling and de-hilling and can also keep the area under your vines weed free if you want a workout.


I pruned late in an attempt to delay bud break and prevent spring frost or freeze damage. When a vine has to spread energy to hundreds of buds, it will take a lot more time to reach bud break. Bud break generally occurs first at the ends of the shoots, then works backwards to the base. The buds that would make my canes (if spur pruning) were the first one or two at the base of last years canes. You can delay bud burst pretty effectively with delayed pruning but you never know how late a frost or freeze might occur.

Bud Burst on Grapevine
Bud Break

Another popular strategy in colder regions is to cane prune instead of spur prune. This method involves a renewal cane closest to the trunk on each side, that is bent down the next year to form the new cordons. Everything past that is pruned off. Since the buds open up starting at the end over the span of a couple weeks, you are unlikely to lose everything if a frost happens. I did a little bit of cane and spur pruning this year. A good set of hand pruners is essential when pruning.


Once new growth starts, you can begin positioning shoots which is oddly satisfying. My trellis is setup for Smart Dyson, but for now I am only using the top wires and doing Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP). I feed the canes up through the guide wires as they grow and occasionally tie one off with a velcro plant tie or pull the wires together with a plastic clip. If the canes get too crowded, you can thin them out or spread them out (Or bend them down if you have a Smart Dyson trellis). If the canes grow too tall, you can trim them back. If you have excessive lateral shoots you can trim them if they get in the way. You want to make sure that the vegetative growth does not start to shade the berries too much.


If any grape clusters are dramatically off schedule compared to the neighboring clusters, they can be clipped off. Ideally clusters of the same variety will all reach optimum ripeness at the same time. If a varietal seems to be struggling to ripen in your area, you can reduce the crop load by limiting each cane to one or two clusters.


Many of the varietals that I am growing, favor long, sunny growing conditions. To help encourage ripening I pull leaves at or below the clusters that may cause shade to the berries. Early in the season, I do this on the east side (morning sun), and later on the west side (more about this later).


Managing pests is a large portion of the work in the vineyard and is most important from bud break to harvest. Without good pest management techniques I would not have grapes.


2020 Pest Challenges and Solutions

We have no shortage of grapevine pests in the Eastern US. The pests fall into three categories in my experience; vertebrates, bugs, and molds/mildews/diseases.


Vertebrates

The most persistent warm blooded pests that I run into are whitetail deer, birds, rabbits, and groundhogs... oh, and small humans. At this point, I have got them pretty well figured out and crop damage has been very minimal this year.

Picking Grapes
Nothin' to See Here

I have 1 joule electric fence around the vineyard with a single wire about 25 inches off the ground. This has surprisingly kept the deer out completely. I hang a few bars of Irish Spring soap off of the end posts in the area that deer are most likely to enter. I think this helps to put the deer on edge so they don't try anything fancy (deer love trying to pull one over on you). The electric fence is on a timer to turn on shortly before sunset and off after sunrise. I also keep it active year round to effectively train the deer to stay out before they realize what they are missing out on. The microsecond jolt from the fence is very startling but not harmful to our white tailed friends.

White Tail Deer
What are You Lookin' At?

Birds are notorious for picking a vineyard or blueberry bush clean. The red grapes are most appealing to birds. The evolutionary reason they turn purple, red, or black is literally to attract birds which are natures seed spreaders. In order to grow a small vineyard, you may need to intervene with this natural process. I use a Plantra Side Netting on the red grapes from veraison (when they turn red) until harvest. This has been very successful and I saw very little bird damage on the clusters (<1%) this year.


Rabbits and groundhogs are a relatively minor concern but they can cause trouble when the vines are young and establishing. To prevent groundhogs and rabbits from chomping, I used grow tubes on establishing vines. These really aren't necessary after the first season.



Bugs!

The bugs that kept me up at night were Grape Cane Girdlers, Japanese Beetles and Wasps/Hornets.


Around mid June, I was noticing whole sections of vineyard where the top eight inches of many canes were snapped off. It looked almost like a deer had caused it, but it was mostly about 7-8ft in the air so that was unlikely. I thought maybe birds or squirrels might be doing it but this also seemed implausible. That's when I learned about the elusive Grape Cane Girdler. Female cane girdlers will girdle around the new growth of a cane and lay eggs into those puncture wounds. A couple inches above this the first girdle, she will girdle again, often causing the vine to snap off... ughhhhh! A little bit of damage is really not a problem but if it gets excessive, intervention may be needed. I was getting to the point of excessive damage towards the end of June. Since we were long past bloom and the honeybees were long gone, I was able to suppress the insects with Carbaryl (old formulation of Sevin).

Grape Cane Girdler

Japanese beetles usually come in two waves around early July and can wreak havoc on the canopy. They generally work from the top down and can skeletonize a leaf in no time. The first wave this year was very light to almost non-existent. I suspect this was due to the dry weather. In mid July, we were in the hospital as my wife delivered our wonderful baby daughter. Nature recognized this as an opportunity, and the beetles came in with a vengeance around July 15. I came home and caught them in the act as they had partially pulverized the top 12-18 inches of many vines. They like the grapevines so much that they will completely ignore any gardens nearby. In a commercial growing region, there may not be enough beetles to warrant spraying but in a small backyard vineyard, the entire neighborhood of beetles will converge. To eliminate the beetles, I sprayed Carbaryl (old Sevin) once again, which is VERY effective.


PS: If anyone has experience with the new Sevin formulation on Japanese Beetles, please post in the comments. Carbaryl only comes in inconvenient sizes for home growers now.


Around late September, I started to see some issues with yellow jackets and other wasps and hornets. This was relatively minor and was generally limited to grapes that had already been either damaged by bird punctures or black rot. I ended up deciding not to spray and figured the wasp induced in-berry fermentation would add complexity to the finished wine. In Italy, a little wasp damage is welcome and is considered to be a large contributor to wine complexity.

Bald Faced Hornet